Want a butterfly? Design a worm

Cristian Biotto Cristian Biotto
Principal, Tunnel Systems
12 November 2019
5 min read

It is somewhere out there. Out of sight, out of smell, and so far out of mind that we can measure it in light years. Regardless, it demands its pound of flesh and what it spares us in head space, it exacts from just about everything else we hold dear. The giant, Dali-esque elephant desperately trying to blend into the corner of our neat little room is the friendly neighbourhood landfill. And it's not only the landfill – thrown into the deal are air pollution, water poisoning and spontaneous combustion. You never marry a single person, you marry the family. And this crowd is a hot mess.

Permaculture, originally a term coined to mean permanent agriculture and later permanent culture to include social aspects, is a whole-systems thinking where nature serves as our example of optimum design for optimum sustainability.

Far from being confined to the realm of tie-dye and drum circles, permaculture principles have found their way into boardrooms and onto drawing boards. But it is going to take a village. From schools and universities, through to the private sector and government, we are going to need to fully embrace it as the way that makes most economic and ecological sense.

Think of a child, arguably the most complex and brilliant design on earth: one of its first questions is "where do I come from?" Maybe it is a fundamental question embedded in our DNA. And yet we readily ignore it when we purchase a product, eagerly unwrap it and discard the packaging. When a product is finished, or we no longer want or need it, its empty shell gets dumped where we don't have to deal with it. We don't ask where it came from and we don't ask where it's going.

But we should, shouldn't we?

Design for deconstruction

The circular economy dares us to ask this: what would happen if we consistently consider objects and materials in terms of their entire life cycles?

From conception, design, manufacturing, transport, usage and its eventual rebirth as a brand-new product or part – daring innovators not only to innovate and design to build, but also to – later on – deconstruct and reuse. Like the metamorphosis of a worm into a butterfly, can we design for initial function, its end of life, as well as its second life?

The idea isn't entirely new, as engineers, designers and those in the construction and demolition industry would know. Over the years, Lifecycle Building Challenges and Living Building Challenges have been promoting the 'design for deconstruction' principle further to help reduce waste at every phase of a building's life – especially when they reach their 'expiration date'.

In fact, the UK, Hong Kong and Australia are using rating systems that reward points for structures that are designed for deconstruction. The 92 000 square metre Crystal Palace exhibition hall was built in 1851 and was later deconstructed after the exhibition, with its iron and plate glass structure taken apart and reassembled on Penge Peak, south of London.

Applying this to the circular economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Circularity Indicators Project is providing organisations with a methodology and tools to assess how they are performing, in terms of their circularity. Just imagine if we display a "LID" (Landfill and Incinerator Divert) rating to indicate how well or how poorly a product has been designed and manufactured with its entire life cycle in mind.

At a glance, people could see how sustainably the raw materials were sourced, the product manufactured, how easily it could be dismantled or transformed into something new and, most importantly, kept out of landfills. Governments could tax products with a lower rating, given they cost more to reuse or dispose of.

Waste not want not

The subject of recycling is as vast as the pile of garbage we generate every day, and some very compelling arguments against it are worth looking into. While for the most part it is good, recycling can be tricky and, at times, can cause more harm than good – especially when done wrongly. Aside from several misconceptions about the correct process of recycling, not everything that’s recyclable gets recycled.

The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as "the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health."

Quite a hefty standard to aspire to, but one which San Francisco and Singapore have firmly in view. San Francisco diverts about 80 per cent, more than 1.5 million tonnes of waste from landfills annually. In Japan, it is now illegal to throw away appliances. Instead, it must be returned to the shop of purchase where it gets dismantled and reused. Perhaps the subject of dismantling can become part of design curriculums?

Director of the Zero Waste Project, Kirstie Pecci, says: "The solid waste industry has done a fantastic job of convincing us that large landfills and incinerators are at best benign, and at worst necessary evils in a modern economy." Zero Waste programmes have been shown to outperform landfills and incinerators on every measure: job creation, impact on the environment and public health, resource or energy conservation, sustainability and real costs to consumers and municipalities.

Circular Economy 2.0: Humans will save the day

As large industries start to embrace the mission for a sustainable future, European Economic Social Committee rapporteur Carlos Trias Pintó is calling to start the Circular Economy 2.0 to tackle and advocate for consumer information and education to steer them "towards circular behaviour patterns".

In his book, The Ultimate Resource, Julian Lincoln challenges the notion that humanity is running out of resources and believes: The 'ultimate resource' is not any physical object but the capacity for humans to invent and adapt. He says there exist undiscovered sources; sources that are not yet economically or technologically feasible to extract, as well as ignored resources that could prove useful but are not yet worth trying to discover.

Will human ingenuity be able to navigate through this mess? If we use our resources wisely, sparingly and completely, we will always have enough. When manufacturers become responsible for disposal, the very definition of waste will be redefined and new possibilities recognised. We need to start thinking about this before something that takes up so little head space will occupy everything around us.

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Cristian Biotto
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Cristian Biotto

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